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'We rectified a mistake to invite Modi'

March 05, 2013 12:29 IST

Despite fierce criticism by Narendra Modi's supporters that the Wharton Business School has violated the Gujarat chief minister's freedom of speech by cancelling his keynote speech at this month's Wharton India Economic Forum, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania argues that the cancellation has nothing to do with the curtailment of free speech.

Suman Guha Mozumder reports from New York.

"The issue, as Narendra Modi's supporters claim, is not of restricting freedom of speech. I think it was a good decision on the part of the school," says Toorjo Ghosh, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who was among several professors who launched the initial petition demanding that the Gujarat chief minister be disallowed from keynoting the conference.

"I believe this process of free speech is dialectical," Professor Ghosh said. "It is not true that just because an invitation was given by one wing, another wing of the university cannot resist or protest it. The decision was based on the basis of views by both sides. And that is part of the dialectical process."

"I think we rectified what would have been a mistake to allow Modi to address the prestigious conference. It speaks of a good decision-making process at the University of Pennsylvania and also at Wharton," Professor Ghosh added.

"I think it was a learning process for the students," he said. "After all, you cannot divest economic progress from human progress and human progress is also economic progress. Given the rights records, we felt we should not be encouraging him to give the keynote here."

Inviting Modi was not well thought out, Professor Ghosh felt. Some 160 academics and activists from the US and other countries signed the petition by Monday evening. The number has now gone up to around 400.

'We are outraged to learn that the Wharton India Forum has invited Narendra Modi,' the petition read.

'It is incomprehensible to us that this is the man who the forum wishes to celebrate as an exemplar of economic and social development. We find it astonishing that any academic and student body at the University of Pennsylvania can endorse ideas about economic development that are based on the systematic oppression of minority populations, whether in India or elsewhere,' the petition continued.

'Our role as scholars and students -- and indeed as would-be entrepreneurs and business managers -- must be to develop conscientious and efficacious modes of economic organisation, not to-back onto the inhuman policies of politicians who not only lack a commitment to human rights and to ideals of social justice, but whose political success is based on the suppression of substantial sections of their own citizens,' the petition went on to say.

Although the Wharton India Economic Forum organisers (mainly senior students) did not return calls or e-mail messages from this correspondent for comment, a former Wharton student felt this year's organising committee perhaps did not visualise that such a furor would take place over Modi's appearance at the event.

Professor Ghosh said though he is not directly associated with Wharton, his understanding is that normally the student body has a lot of say in the selection of the invited speakers, but since the school gives a lot of funding, all invitations and brochures carry names of both Wharton and U-Penn, it is not just the students but the authorities who have a say in the decision-making process.

News reports quoted the organisers saying the body was extremely impressed with Modi's credentials and leadership, and the invitation was sent to the Gujarat chief minister on that basis.

In a statement it said the committee would abide by the authorities' decision.

"There is nothing embarrassing for either Wharton students or U-Penn," Professor Ghosh said. "It may be embarrassing for some people who support the chief minister or Modi himself, but certainly not for academics or students and officials."

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York